His agent was right: Bellman was about as articulate as a pinecone. Expressive, yes. Articulate, no. In the verbal domain, “No, no, the entire phrase, one gesture,” was, for Bellman, a longish utterance. Now and then—not often, his self-mastery was thorough—he’d half-lift his hand as though reaching for a recalcitrant word, which only sometimes revealed itself.
This made his English seem oddly crude for a well-educated Scandinavian. On the fourth day, I sat down in the desk lamp’s cheap chiaroscuro and watched him step across to the piano bench, then turn on one foot and in a single movement bend, reach down, and lift me into an embrace. When I said, “I don’t know if I can—here. If I can let go,” his eyes clouded with momentary helplessness as he answered, his arms authoritative around me, hands holding my shoulder blades, fingertips together on my spine:
“You want, I want. What does it matter where?”
But it did matter: here, now, in the grayish room where I slid down to kneel in front of him, between his legs, my arms on his thighs as he bent down, too, his kiss explorative, demanding. The disrobing, quick and efficient for him, quick and ceremonial for me. No space between us: a word here, a tongue, something in Swedish that I lost, him in my mouth, that most intimate kiss, the soft pulse at the back of my throat—the surprise of his urgent tenderness—and later, I was dazzled by the rush in my ears but through it I heard his voice and mine, too, shouting. A note like wilderness, boreal.
He called his family daily. His children were aged nine, twelve, and sixteen. All girls. His wife was a flutist. He lent me family photos—he had his wife send the negatives, overnight mail, from Stockholm—for my article. They were all sweet-featured and blond; his wife perhaps no longer naturally so. I felt a twinge of guilt. He showed no similar sign.
He never kissed me goodbye at the end of a meeting, never expressed sentiment—never seemed to feel any after, or much before. Only during. Even the last day (last! it was just the fifth!) after terrifying and noisy lovemaking, we talked as usual, quiet wrap-up interview questions he half answered: final remarks on the students, on the results one can expect from a single week’s work. “It will not change them in an exaggerated way; can be significant; it is what it is,” were his helpful insights.
Then I was standing at the door, notebook in hand. “I might need to call you, for the article,” I said.
“My agent can give you the number. I will be in New York for one week.” I lifted my hand, meaning to place it on his chest. He flinched, leaned back as if repelled by a magnetic field, but checked himself politely. I checked my hand, paralyzed. His eyes narrowed a little: retreat, then a flicker of obligation. He dipped his head for a stunningly perfunctory kiss.
“Write a good article,” he said. It could just as easily have been “Remember me to your cousin” or “Have a good weekend.” Then he leaned forward to open the door and urge me through it, winked with sheepish flirtatiousness, and watched me as I slid out. I glanced back as I walked away, saw only the closing door and the retreating toe of a black shoe.
Writing the article was painful work. I told no one. How could I have spoken about it? I didn’t have language to describe it. I had revealed myself to I didn’t know whom, I had shown him I didn’t know what. I told myself that the experience had been an aberration, that it was meaningless, that it was transcendent truth beyond words, that it was just a data point about men in general and Europeans in particular. I sat for hours in front of my computer screen, unseeing, not typing, immersed in sensations—on the floor, naked, my edges blurred into his like the colors bleeding together in an off-register photograph. A wash of electric soda circulated in me, hot and fizzy like the first time—I’d laugh, look up and around, out my office window, dazed and happy for a second. It was awful.
It didn’t go away. It grew less frequent; I managed it. I let it out to beat wildly now and then, and put it away again. Four silent months later I got a call from Bellman’s San Francisco agent, offering me a ticket to his concert in Los Angeles that week.
“What for?” I said.
“You’re asking me? He must’ve liked the story. Mind you, nobody’s offering you the plane fare!”
I agonized only briefly, overnight, interrogating the ceiling leaf-shadows. I went. The agent didn’t know where Bellman was staying, suggested I call his New York agent. I didn’t. I just went, and took a cab from the airport to the concert hall. It must’ve been about five in the afternoon, but sun-flash hot, July, with a dash of fine grit and ozone in the air. I was wearing a sundress and sunglasses, sandals, nothing else. Carrying a white jacket and overnight bag, like a girlfriend. The box office didn’t know where Bellman could be found. I mentioned my newspaper’s name; they called public relations, who said Bellman was in his dressing room. The box-office manager walked me through the appropriate doors, pointed down a corridor, retreated. A geometry of white walls, pale carpet, vague shadows; the discreet sigh of air-conditioning.
I knocked, and each rap of my knuckles on the door was like a lesson taught with a ruler slap, warning me that during the separation I had let my feelings run on, dithering, wild. I was more vulnerable now than before, more excited, fearful. Our intimacy had progressed—in me.
And in him? No idea. I heard him moving within, approaching. I put my hand on the doorknob just as he did, too: we opened it in a tumble of double the expected force. I fell into a collision with enfolding arms, pleased laughter. He nudged the door closed after me with his foot; the rest of him was seeking my reply.
I seem to remember our voices, mixed together, in that room. But in words, “I want you” was the only thing he said, quickly, in a rasp-whisper, as he drew me down onto a spectacularly large, dark-blue leather couch provided, I surmise, by the artistic management.
It was the beginning of a series: at intervals of weeks or months Bellman would have a ticket offered to me through some intermediary, I would go, we made love, I heard the concert, came home. Sometimes he’d send a plane ticket (separately, by mail) if he wanted me to come an expensive distance. I always made it, canceled whatever I was doing.
His playing was unimaginably consistent: scary-so-brilliant, spontaneous, disciplined. He never disappointed. I couldn’t identify how he moved people—every time!—but I could feel it happen, out there, lost in the audience.
Only in the exhausted minutes after making love, when biochemical intimacy had united us and for a moment longer held us, saturated—this was the only time we were at ease with each other. In the beginning it lasted maybe a minute, no more, before he gave me a narrow-eyed glance and pulled away; before his flirtatiousness returned, condescending. But gradually the moment grew elastic, stretched, lingered.
“How did you discover you were a musician?” I asked as he lay beside me on a scratchy carpet in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He laughed, a big, short “ha!” and his hand came to life on my hip, his thumb stroking automatically as he said:
“The question you might have asked for your article. You know I was fixed on becoming a footballer—soccer player. I had the talent. My mother was against. I was playing the piano, but was not serious. Then in a game near our summer house I was injured by one of the local boys, who ran into me, a supposed accident but of course not an accident at all. I was hurt, my left ankle broken. Worse, my nose fractured, which I was afraid would discourage the girls.”
“That didn’t happen.”
He let his eyes glimmer. “Seems not to have been so important. But my recovery I spent practicing. My mother engaged a higher-level teacher, I was encouraged. Life took a different direction. Thanks to that youth.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“No, just a local brute, from a wealthy family. I was stronger and quicker, he wanted to win; so he cheats. I remember his eyes very well—pale and empty, as pebbles in a stream. Just—nothing. The enemy!” He laughed again. “Probably part of my audience now. I thank him sometimes in my mind, when I acknowledge applause.”
In Seattle, three evenings running, before each of his concerts, we made love in a large pink- silk-embroidered armchair. In Denver, on a chrome-and-denim divan. There, after, I lay on his chest, looking at his face, the large eyes closed, blissful, replete.
I was smitten, I wanted to laugh. Instead I said:
“What are we doing?”
He didn’t open his eyes, didn’t move. From one eyebrow, a single longish hair curled down toward his eyelid.
“We are on a raft,” he said.
And he’d revert to Bellman the character. As if nothing had happened. As if he didn’t even much like having me there. A kind of well-rested readiness would animate his movements. He’d wash, slip on his shirt, his shorts; wait for me to leave. And I would be mute, chatty, crushed, cheerful. It wasn’t happening, it was, it would again.
I didn’t see him after his performances. He never asked me to. Once, he phoned me, late, at a hotel.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Thinking about you.”
The line hummed with silence.
“You never call,” I said.
“Do you want to see me?”
“No,” he said, vehemently and without conviction.
“OK. Good night?”
“Yes. Good night. Sleep tight.” In that damn tone of general affection for all.
It lasted just under two years. I didn’t plan anything, didn’t expect anything. Except: this happened, was ongoing. Real.
And then it stopped, or seemed to. Just nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I waited, I don’t remember how long. It was like someone being missing in action, or at sea: you don’t know when it’s over. I fabricated mundane scenarios—he’d told his wife, they were fighting; he’d found another lover; one of his daughters was diagnosed with leukemia—stupid fantasies. I gummed up my mind trying to weave them into sense. I was in love, despite his militant nonparticipation in my life outside the dressing room; his dressing room.
It was at least a year before my attention was free enough to turn elsewhere. But then eventually there was a day when I glimpsed a nice-looking guy through the window of a restaurant, talking to someone I knew. I went in, was introduced. Et cetera. The three-dimensional lover, mine, whose lovemaking was neither anguished in its climax nor hostile in its retreat. Who spoke standard American English. A friendly native, like me. Who had, I was subtly surprised to find (since I’d never found them in anyone before Bellman), his own layers of violent tenderness, arctic and blue-hot.
Twenty-two months after I’d last seen him, Bellman came to San Francisco for a series of performances with the symphony. The final rehearsal, on the morning before the first concert, was open to the public as a kind of lecture-preview with coffee and doughnuts. I went. I watched his semaphoric interchange with the conductor, his head-tip, cocking an ear toward his own hands, his right foot in rhythm with his senses on the pedal. He was wearing the same herringbone blazer I’d first seen him in, a black-and-navy tweed that had been surprisingly supple when my fingers clasped a bit of it as he kissed me the first time.
I went backstage after, spied him in a nodding trio with a couple of oboes, caught his eye. He approached with a hearty hello, a frank and fraudulent smile, an arm lifted to circle my shoulder with airy politeness.
“I want you,” he said quietly, away from the wind instrumentalists. And then, “I want you.” And, “I want you.”
“How are you?” I said politely.
“Will you come?”
I missed a beat, screwed up the rhythm, then asked: “Where are you staying?” He mentioned the hotel, the room number. I didn’t answer his question. His hand slid down my back, gently verified my undergarments.
“I bought a ticket,” I said.
“Tonight?” he said. I nodded. But I went neither to his hotel nor his concert. I stayed home. Something in me was stuck, like an eyelash caught under the lid. He called the next morning. The sound of his voice provoked pulses, tickled glands. Hot, faint, angry, I made a date. “But I just want to talk to you,” I said. I arrived half an hour late, dawdled in the lobby rest room, finally knocked at his door and on entering intended to sit down and get everything straight, starting with an understanding of why he had disappeared, and what he felt for me.
No. We didn’t exchange words. His eyes were brilliant, aquamarine, frightening. Almost frightened, I recognized. (Had they been that way before?) He took me the way a man might take possession of land, of his home after almost losing it to a fire, or a creditor. I let it happen, wondering vaguely what I wanted. A backtrack to courtship, a charade of dinner-dates, divorce proceedings, tawdry depositions, the humiliating stares of his pretty children, middle-aged widowhood? Yes; yes! Of course: what love wants: more love, the nerve-and-muscle argument, the freckled slope from his heavy shoulder to the little flat-bulbed nipple tasting of salt: yes. I wanted to shout, that’s what I wanted, to open my throat all the way, so I could speak, sing, fight, eat, bear children—live. Aloud.
He didn’t revert to character afterward. We lay still, resolved together like a chord.
At some point he said, “I can’t.”
And I said, “I know”—a perfect lie. I knew nothing.
So last night, as a personal experiment, I went to hear Adam Bellman. The great Swedish pianist. But what was the experiment? The hypothesis? What happened? I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in six years.
It didn’t make me consciously flash back, I didn’t retrace our relationship during his concert. I just felt it, in the music coming from his hands. He reached right in under my bareback dress, touched the tips of my breasts, curved around every tender spot, as if my skin were new, naked like a child in the bathtub, soft and open all over. I looked at the rounded silhouette of his cheek, at his big upper arms free and agile in the requisite tux, in the lacquered orange-gold glow of the paneled stage. “It will change nothing,” he’d said at the beginning. Of course I didn’t believe him. It made me angry, though, at the time. I took it as an assertion of my insignificance. Now, it struck me as an overmodest judgment of himself, as when he had downplayed the effect of his teaching.
My thought dissolved into the music. I let it go. My mind’s eye opened on a low-angled, auroral light that shone across snow fields too far north for habitation, an image traversed by celluloid trolls moving in shadow crowds along the edge of a forest, dozens of them, with funny peaked cloth hats and rubbery curved noses. They spilled upward, in overlapping transparencies, from the cleft of a little haunted stream. A voice called across the snow, penetrating my consciousness only gradually, along with the image of a bony-shouldered scarecrow in shirtsleeves, hunched over a keyboard: it was Glenn Gould, the Canadian Bach specialist whose recordings are full of furious hums and moans that crescendo like a nervous breakdown against his chiming, mathematical pianism. (I remember liner notes describing a record producer’s frazzled efforts to get Gould to shut up. He couldn’t, even with a rag stuffed in his mouth.)
It was Bellman, singing again—shouting, calling. I know it’s not uncommon among pianists—vocalizing, consciously or not, an emotion or a counterpoint. But Bellman had never had this habit before, not when I’d been there. I flattered myself with the notion that I hadn’t been replaced. No new muse; thus his voice, aching. As in bed. Did he wonder whether I was out there now? I stayed away last time he was in town, four years ago. I’ve already taken that class, I told myself, I don’t need to repeat it. But now—unattainable music, that solitary male animal at the keyboard, reaching—I don’t know.
A pause. Silence.
And then blam!—like Hollywood artillery, the audience flared into yells of its own. It satisfied itself with violent applause, greedy whistles, encores. Like hormonally hyped-up sports fans.
Walking away, after: it seemed to have rained. Or maybe they’d just hosed down the sidewalks. The city felt washed, the blacks extra black, the puddles glowing neon red and blue, a splash of mercury thrown up by passing tires. As I stepped out across the intersection in front of Davies Hall, I felt an unexpected fizz in my veins. I fixed my eyes on the aqua interior of a too-cute gelato shop where concertgoers were starting to line up, and the briefest fantasy flickered through me: my fingertips on the soft indentation at the base of his throat, my mouth fitting around that bitter-juiced little fruit, mine, immediately everything open, right there, the—
A car horn honked. I’d stopped in the middle of Van Ness Avenue, the light had changed. I stepped quickly, lifted my foot to the grimy curb, but it felt oddly weightless—all of me, lightweight—not airy and free so much as panicked and insubstantial, unable to get an anchor from gravity—like milkweed fluff about to be blown from the urban scene.
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